Music

Ash: Twilight of the Innocents

If this is to be the final full-length chapter from this Irish band, they’ve given their parting salute with an impeccable album.


Ash

Twilight of the Innocents

Label: Infectious
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2007-07-02
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“I started a fire, I watched it grow, and now it burns out of control”.

What a perfect start to an album that is. Ireland’s Ash have always provided the jaunty, ear-grabbing soundtrack to find your significant other, ever since their first disc Trailer was unleashed upon the world in 1994, when they were just 17 years of age.

Their allure lies not only in the charm of their hearty, romantic lyrics, but in the unpredictable way the melodies are shaped, the words written. The couplet above is followed by “I leapt off a precipice, and I’m falling into an abyss”; on their fifth full-length, the group are playing as a three-piece for the first time since their sophomore 1977, having lost Charlotte Hatherley to a solo career.

Obviously, they’re no longer feeling the ‘limitations’ of being a trio they were back then: energy is embedded into every spare second of Twilight of the Innocents, and not just thumping lead single “You Can’t Have It All” (wise words indeed). A bash abounds in garage-rock distortions, “woah-ohs” and a raunchy Strokes bassline that re-emerges later in the disc on “Dark & Stormy”, which despite its downcast title is a strutting of glammed-up guitar and amplified rhythms.

If Mark Hamilton’s output adds a rumbling four-stringed exuberance into the mix, Rick McMurray’s cymbal-ridden percussion adds fuel to the groove, and Tim Wheeler occupies his fingers with guitarwork one moment blistering, the next subdued, while his solos are both melodic and distinguished. The most important connection, though, to the record is made through Wheeler’s breathless delivery; although he and his band have truly matured and gel better in three-piece form than ever before, it’s his personality that makes him still rub off like a teenager… and, in a way, that’s what makes Twilights of the Innocents convincing.

It’s easy, in that case, to list the slamming bass notes on a piano during “I Started A Fire”, matched with double-edged guitars a la Foo Fighters, or the way “Palace of Excess” slips a falsetto chorus that smoothly ascends in semitones with ambient electronic flourishes throughout. But that would be understating the atmosphere, the subtle blend of it all, the overall effect which has to be heard to be fully appreciated. On the other hand, you couldn’t miss the album’s irresistible, soaring poppy stanzas that have Beatles written all over them (or not – “we’re way better than the Beatles”, Ash so modestly claim).

So that you’re included as much as Ash are on the disc’s ride, they push all the right buttons for the sake of a rock-out chorus, and they have a way of peering at social ills on select tracks with a wink and a nudge. “Blacklisted” goes from its opening line “Blacklisted in this town” to descriptions of raining fire and brimstone and collapsing galaxies, as if they’re suggesting that they’re blacklisted because they’re singing about such themes and still seem as unfailingly jovial and uplifting as anything. The fact that the lyrics could also be interpreted to address a lost lover adds to the mystery of it all.

Yet “End of the World” follows the same path and is as musically stark as the band gets; instead of promising impending destruction and ruin, Ash bring forward the apocalypse by painting it, on a balanced acoustic accompaniment, as everyday living, losing none of the offhand insight that could otherwise make it, whisper it quietly, a tad embarrassing to listen to. Free of hellish, overblown proclamations of doom, Wheeler wanders his way through a set of musings that hit home – pondering whether feeling low is the latest fashion, breathing the motorway for the sake of breathing, wondering if anyone would really notice if he died, or if he’s dead already – but keeps coming back to the question, “Is this the end of the world?” which infused with a marked sense of helplessness becomes a memorable hook. Hats off if you can name another band that can do that in a song about the extinction of man.

All six minutes of the title track wraps up Twilight of the Innocents, replacing the guitars with resonating, shimmering strings and an innocent, free-flowing pace. The bass piano notes return, this time snaking ominously through the second verse, and marching-band snares rattle into the cut’s final moments, brought home by Wheeler’s heartfelt repetition of “I’m still breathing / My heart’s still beating” that sums up the whole album’s sun-setting, yearning intensity in a nutshell.

It has been announced that Twilight of the Innocents will be Ash’s final studio album, that from now on the three will devote their efforts towards digital singles for a digital world. It’s possible the band don’t believe in the value of writing and recording a full-length record anymore; but they have to bear in mind at the same time that this is a seamless work that, at times, flirts with perfection, and if they do decide to leave the album format behind from here, they’ve given their parting salute in a most impeccable manner.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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